teen girl looking out rainy window with mask on

How Can Teens Take Care of Themselves during the Pandemic?

By Lucie Hemmen, PhD, author of The Teen Girl’s Anxiety Survival Guide

COVID-19 has been hard on all of us. From masked little ones and their stressed parents to isolated elders, this virus has challenged us to the core. We are heavily wired as a species to seek connection for survival, protection, community, and emotional support. We’re also designed to be absolutely great in situations involving short-term stress and danger. Long-term scenarios, not so much. Long-term stress coupled with human disconnection add up to mental health challenges for everyone, especially our teens.

As a psychologist specializing in teens for over two decades, I’ve seen many mental health changes and trends over the years. I have never seen teens suffer the way they have (and are) during COVID.

Unlike adults for whom social connection is clearly good, teens require social environments to develop and refine their sense of self and place in the world. This cannot be accomplished through TikTok, Snapchat, texting, or gaming. Only through navigating life in shared physical environments can teens experience the millions of micro- and macro-challenges, and interactions that help them learn and develop in ways too numerous to list.

Like buds requiring good weather to blossom, our teens need peer contact and loads of different life experiences to fully develop. In quarantine, they’ve contracted and become insular in their own heads, with too much time to think and spiral into dark places. Symptoms of depression and anxiety are up in our teens, and it’s not at all surprising.

I’ve even heard teens lately say they don’t care about seeing friends anymore. Everything feels overwhelming and they fear reconnection will feel too awkward. They’re unsure about the state of their friend groups, which feel fragmented and uncertain. With less interaction overall, but more time to overthink each interaction, painful self-doubt can drive teens deeper into isolation. Social anxiety is common in teens under regular conditions, so with all of the “time off” from social normalcy, anticipatory anxiety about an eventual new normal ignites feelings of painful vulnerability and uncertainty.

And then there’s the home front. No matter how loving a family is, no one is meant to be together this much. For teens, constant proximity to caretakers poses a special challenge. They love their families—no matter how much annoyance they convey. They’re just not meant to be around them constantly. Family game nights of early pandemic have long given way to widely reported pod detachment: each member isolating in their own space, with a tech item of choice.

No wonder because adults are burned out too. They’ve lost their stamina to motivate others and have big worries of their own. Many state they’re just plain out of ideas. A common scenario I see is a loving adult bending over backwards to be gentle with a struggling teen, but hitting a wall. The exhausted adult becomes overwhelmed with their own anxiety about the teen who seems lethargic, disengaged, uncommunicative, unproductive, extremely irritable, and/or glued to a screen into the wee hours of the night. Things don’t end well. No one feels better after an interaction like that, but they’re fairly common and completely understandable under the circumstances.

At the beginning of quarantine, there were a few perks for teens. The initial slowing of the hamster wheel created space to live differently. Rushing was replaced with a greater sense of calm. Appearance-related stress was replaced with a break from needing to fret or even care. Academic pressure lightened as teachers acclimated to distance learning, and made adjustments in workload and expectations. For a while, teens became more like the teens their parents were. They baked, gardened, pulled out art supplies, googled new projects, and returned to activities they loved when they were younger. Drive-by birthday celebrations and socially distanced gatherings didn’t make up for typical peer contact, but many fared fairly well in the first few months.

With Zoom school now going on and on, gains of early quarantine have been supplanted with a greater toll on mental health. Along with teens describing an increase in anxiety and depressive symptoms, they’ve begun talking a lot about what psychology calls depersonalization and derealization. Depersonalization is a sense of being detached or outside yourself; not feeling “real.” Derealization is a sense that life itself is unreal or distorted.

Many of my adult clients are describing the same states. For some, these states trigger massive anxiety; for others, greater numbness and indifference. With human contact traded out for dehumanizing amounts of screen time, feeling distorted is another symptom that makes perfect sense.

As much as we all struggle, teens are uniquely affected and will need our help getting through the end of this pandemic and back to “regular” life. Here are some ideas to keep in mind:

  • Emotional attunement is always the best medicine. Teens often respond to teaching moments and problem-solving with shutdown and withdrawal. Instead, focus on tuning in to, and validating, their emotions.
    • “As hard as this is for all of us, I think you’re suffering is especially tortuous. I see your efforts to get through this, and I want you to know I feel you and will try my best to be here for you.”
  • Don’t take anything personally, especially now. You don’t need to be a doormat, just remember your teen is under stress we adults can’t fully grasp.
    • “Hey, I know you’re feeling irritable as hell and I don’t blame you. It’s hard to treat each other well under all of this stress, but let’s do the best we can to stay gentle with each other.” Then, let it go. Teens hear you even though they’re good at acting like they don’t. And don’t forget to walk your talk by staying in the gentle zone yourself.
  • Reassurance and support are your go-tos. Taking a moment to offer heartfelt reassurance makes a favorable impact on uncertain teens.
    • “It’s completely understandable that you want to stay in your room. This pandemic is turning us into hermits! But honey, it’s important for you to extend yourself even if it’s baby steps. Engaging with life (others) is as habit-forming as staying in your room and life IS going to get going again. You will become more comfortable and confident as you engage more.”

Lastly, take care of yourselves because inside every adult resides a teen trying their best to “adult” under exhausting circumstances. Remind yourself—and your teen—that things are changing, they’re getting better, and we’re all taking baby steps into a world that is waking and healing.

Lucie Hemmen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with teens and their parents while raising two teen girls of her own, Marley and Daisy. She is author of Parenting a Teen Girl and The Teen Girl’s Survival Guide.

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